Britain is writing the playbook for dictators

A woman using a laptop

During my two decades in tech I’ve seen governments manufacture public outrage to serve their desire for control more times than I can count. There’s a predictable pattern that starts with a complex social problem receiving widespread attention. Everyone acknowledges the gravity of the issue. There is a rush to “do something”. 

But “something” too often involves magical thinking and specious “solutions”. Frequently, technology is painted as both cause and solution. Problems are presented as existing “online” and thus their solution is framed as technological. This almost always involves some combination of expanding surveillance and curbing the fundamental human right to privacy and free expression. 

The Online Safety Bill is a perfect example. Under the pretext of protecting children, its provisions could lead to the implementation of government-mandated mass surveillance applications on every UK smartphone. These would scan every message you send. 

The opaque databases and error-prone AI technology that would power this surveillance regime could lead to the mass deplatforming of millions of people based on unreliable algorithmic systems. Such a system would also introduce vulnerabilities and flaws that would inevitably be exploited by hostile states and hackers. 

While politicians have denied for months that the Bill will break encryption, the Home Office has been quite clear that it believes end-to-end encryption is enabling child abuse on the internet. 

The cynicism of this argument is made clear when we recognise that the Government has reduced support for measures protecting children that seem more likely to work. Early intervention services spending was slashed by 50 per cent from 2011 to 2021; referrals to children’s social care rose 9 per cent in 2021-22 alone. 

There’s no way to square this with the idea that protecting children is the first priority, rather than a pretext for government-mandated mass surveillance.

As written, experts agree the Bill would nullify end-to-end encryption, which Signal and other apps use to ensure that only you and the people you’re talking to read your messages. 

This encryption is what stands between citizens and the criminals, scammers and (sometimes) regimes that would dearly love to have access to their innermost thoughts.

This would make Britain a global role model for repressive regimes. If the UK declares that it’s fine to surveil all communications, it will set a precedent others will follow. 

It will have written the playbook by which authoritarians around the world could justify similar systems, where phones could automatically report citizens to the government if they write “Hong Kong Democracy”, “Ukraine Invasion”, “LGBTQ resources” or whatever else a government decides to ban. Being the first country to mandate such systems would be a stain on Britain’s legacy. 

Whatever happens, Signal is committed to ensuring people everywhere have the ability to communicate privately. When the Iranian government blocked Signal, we recognized that the activists, journalists and citizens in Iran who needed privacy were not represented by the authoritarian state. We worked to set up proxies and other means to help them access Signal. 

If the Online Safety Bill is passed, we promise that we will do everything in our power to ensure that the British people have access to safe and private communications. But we will not undermine or compromise the commitments we have made to you, no matter what the Government says.

However bleak the prospect, I remain optimistic that it will not come to this. The cynical and unworkable reality of the Bill is becoming clearer, and well informed politicians are moving to remedy its most troubling provisions. 

The Online Safety Bill is part of a pattern. But it’s a pattern we can stop here. There are real measures that the Government can take to protect children and I sincerely hope that Parliament will look to address them, rather than stripping away privacy and other fundamental rights.

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